There could be “significant” economic benefits to prescribing a weight loss jab to thousands of people, though the main focus is on improving health, the Health Secretary has said.
Steve Barclay told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that various health “challenges” linked to obesity, such as staff sickness and musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions, have an impact on the labour market.
But he insisted the primary focus of a new £40 million Government pilot scheme to expand access to weight-loss jabs is to tackle obesity and its related health issues such as type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Asked whether the Government’s aim is to help millions of people lose weight and for potentially many of those to get back to work and off benefits, he said: “Yes, we think this can be hugely significant. We know that obesity has very severe health consequences… the impact of obesity is very, very significant on the nation’s health.
“We also know that many people will have tried to lose weight, will have struggled to do so or, indeed, if they have lost weight, will have struggled to keep that weight off, so it’s right that we look at a range of innovations.”
Mr Barclay said the “purpose of the pilot is to inform what its potential scope is and what its wider benefits may be”.
He added: “And you’re right to signal there could be potential economic benefits because economic inactivity, mental health challenge, MSK (musculoskeletal conditions), various health challenges linked to obesity obviously have an impact in terms of the labour market, in terms of staff absence.
“But that’s not the criteria on which this pilot is being set; it has been set on health criteria, and that’s what we’re focused on.
“But from that pilot, the Chief Medical Officer, working with the Chief Economist in the Treasury, will be looking at what wider benefits there may be, because there could be significant benefits economically, but the primary focus of the pilots is on tackling health conditions such as diabetes, such as mental health, such as cancer, that we know are linked to obesity.”
Mr Barclay said he wants the NHS to be at the “front of the pack” when it comes to being able to dispense the new weight-loss drugs.
Speaking to GB News, he said the scheme “is part of a signal to suppliers that this is something the NHS is going to lead on”.
He added: “The funding is in place, we’ve been having those discussions with manufacturers.
“It is at the cutting edge and we want to make sure the NHS is at the front of the pack. It is a very exciting development but it is one alongside a range of other measures that we’re taking.”
The Government wants to tackle poor health and the £6.5 billion cost to the NHS of obesity by making it easier to access the weight-loss treatments through GPs.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) gave approval for the use of appetite suppressant Wegovy (semaglutide) earlier this year, but said it should only be available through specialist services which are largely hospital-based.
The Government said that would mean only around 35,000 people having access to the treatment when tens of thousands more could be eligible under the criteria of having a body mass index of at least 35 and one weight-related condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
The two-year pilot will now explore how approved drugs can be made available to more people by expanding specialist weight management services outside hospitals.
Wegovy was approved for NHS use after research suggested users could shed more than 10% of their body weight.
The drug suppresses the appetite, so people feel fuller and therefore eat less food.
Similar injections, such as Ozempic and Mounjaro, which work in a similar way but are designed to treat diabetes, have not yet been approved on the NHS specifically for weight loss.
Announcing the pilot, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the latest drugs to support people to lose weight “will be a game-changer by helping to tackle dangerous obesity-related health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer”.
Wegovy is a weight-loss injection popular with celebrities – Twitter and Tesla tycoon Elon Musk has said he uses it to stay in shape.
Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, welcomed the move but said there will need to be “sufficient resource and funding to account for the increased workload”.
She added that there also needs to be enough of the drug available “so as not to raise patients’ expectations, as there may be a significant number of people who would benefit from it”.
Elsewhere on Wednesday morning, Mr Barclay was asked on Times Radio whether disposable vapes should be banned and e-cigarettes only available on prescription to reduce their appeal to children.
He said the Government is taking action, including stopping free vapes being given to children, plus new enforcement squads to take action.
He added: “I think it’s a very valid point and and a real concern that you raise in terms of the way that some children have been targeted with vapes.
“So we are looking at that. We have taken a number of steps recently, but we’ve just had a call for evidence to see what more can be done.”
Asked about comments from John Dunne, director of the UK Vaping Industry Association, who said the Government needs to regulate product design such as vape packaging in the shape of a lollipop, Mr Barclay said this would be looked at.
He added: “One wants to ensure that vaping is available to adults because, obviously, in terms of smoking cessation, there are benefits there. But that sounds a fairly extreme example, which is why I’m very happy to flag that to colleagues in the department and see what’s behind that.
“But the wider point that you raised is a very valid one, which is that there is a concern in terms of the targeting of children.”